When I was ten, I lived in the Land of Enchantment. I caught lizards in the backyard with the boy next door, pulled myself up on top of the cinderblock wall and played follow the leader until we jumped down into the sagebrush-studded field behind my house. One summer I planted snapdragons in the garden and played with worms while my sisters sunned themselves by the pool. I tried to forget about being smacked across the face and tried to forget the ugly words spat at me. I never knew where an attack would come from next – my mother, my step-father, or my oldest sister. But it was always behind closed doors.
When I was sixteen, I lived in a quarry town in Illinois. When my step-dad drank too much and mother bitched too much, they fought, and I sat at the top of the stairs rocking and listening, clenching my hands, ready to intervene or call the police, while my siblings hid in their rooms behind closed doors. I was the warrior that stood in between my siblings and my parents. I was the healer when they were in pain. There was a library four blocks from my home and forest preserve beyond that. Whenever I could, I escaped into the woods and the pages of Stephen King, wishing I had powers like Carrie White or Charlie McGee.
I attempted to spill open in a journal that my sister eventually found and read and burned in our fireplace. None of the insults she hurled at me every hurt as much as watching my words burn. I stopped journaling for a long time after that. And yet, the words that burned inside me wouldn’t be silenced and I began a 30-year love affair with letter writing to my friends. They could not steal what did not stay.
In high school, I wore the mask of a high achiever. Honor’s Student. State Scholar. National Honor Society Member. National Science Olympiad medal winner. I graduated in the top 7% of my class. It was higher before the drama intensified. It didn’t mean anything to anyone though. I was still the scapegoat of the family and the whipping girl. My only sin was seeing beneath the veil of lies and holding up a mirror to the family dysfunction. I kept grinding away at my studies, a quiet rage and humiliation burning in my belly that helped me to survive.
I put myself through a local college, writing essays to earn small scholarships, because, despite my bright future and hard work, my mother refused to let me go away to university, explaining I’d probably party, drop out, and marry like my younger sister went on to do 12 years later. Instead, I got my first microbiology job when I was a junior while taking a full class load in biology, chemistry, and calculus. It didn’t mean much. I was still a punching bag.
I ran away three times.
Once when I was 18 for a night. I walked ten miles that day, seriously considered hitchhiking to my father’s in Colorado, but then remembered Stephen King’s The Stand and thought twice about a cross-country trip by myself. I ended up at my ex-boyfriend’s house and his parents gave me sanctuary for the night. I intended on taking all the sleeping pills I bought just before, but instead, I only took two and had nightmares.
Once I left when I was 22 for two months when my mother was verbally attacking me about my boyfriend when I was working for her in her deli. She called to coerce me to come back home. When that didn’t work, my grandfather wrote me a letter telling me I was an incorrigible ingrate and he was going to disown me, thanks to my mother’s lies. My grandmother joined in and wrote me a Catholic guilt-laden letter. The only reason I went back home was on account of my boyfriend’s father having been laid off and started drinking in the middle of the night. I figured the devil I knew was better than the devil I didn’t.
The day I left home for good was the day my mother had her hand at my throat. At 24 years old, I was pushed up against the hallway wall, with her other hand poised to hit me. I raised myself up, stared defiantly in her eyes, offered my cheek to her, and said, “go ahead and hit me, you know how much I like it.” She dropped her hand, told me that if I didn’t have my things moved out by three pm, she was going to throw them all out on the lawn. My only sin? Intervening in the fight she was having with my 25-year-old sister about her boyfriend (who she is now married to). I hit the glass of a picture frame with a clenched fist and when she turned to me, I laughed at her maniacally.
That was the last day she ever laid a hand on me, but it was not the last of her attempts to manipulate, humiliate, and control me from a distance. My younger sister, the last and most enmeshed one, took over the abuse on behalf of my mother in the years since. Catholic guilt and a strong desire for family ties, plus the financial help she gave if I behaved, kept me chained to my family much more than it should have.
It was easy to make the decision to leave my childhood home. And much harder to heal the traumas I endured, especially since my ex-husband was dysfunctional too. His drinking and my escaping into myself kept me distracted from the recovery work I needed. Until it all came to a series of more traumas and breakdowns that clearly showed me I couldn’t contain it all anymore. I had some very dark nights of the soul as I white-knuckled my way through them. Therapy, support groups, art journaling, photography, making art, and most recently, being embraced by a community of creatives all made a positive impact in my life.
I am not who my family said I was.
I’m here, on the other side of trauma, recovered and yet still recovering from the residual effects of trauma, living life as best as I can as our ecosystems crumble and our political dramas rage on and my children struggle with their anxieties and existential depression. Loving those who let me, if only a little while.
Where to, from here? I don’t know. It’s the biggest question I have right now. And I don’t have the answer just yet.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything.”
~ Rainer Maria Rilke